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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR | Pop Music

For Gary Allan and Band, All the World's a Stage

O.C.-spawned singer, who spends most of his time doing live shows, likes to spend offstage moments catching waves. And as the ex-Swallow's bartender rises in stature, he vows to keep playing honky-tonks.

March 22, 2000|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Gary Allan gets time for some R&R, where he goes and what he does are two more signs that he's not your garden variety country singer.

Allan doesn't head back to a farm in the rolling hills outside Nashville, fish in the mountain streams of Montana or even water-ski on the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta.

This week, in fact, he'll be pulling into Southern California, grabbing one of the three surfboards he keeps in storage at his parents' place in La Mirada and hitting the beach to surf near the Huntington Beach Pier with his buddies.

"We'll probably pull the bus in at my parents' house and have a barbecue there too," Allan said earlier this week from a tour stop in El Paso, en route to his show Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Irvine.

He's also taking a quick break while he's on the turf where he honed his music through years of gigs at Southland honky-tonks like the Lion D'Or in Downey (he and his cohorts spent three years there as the house band) and working jobs like his old gig tending bar at the Swallow's Inn in San Juan Capistrano.

Those are the kinds of places by all rights he's outgrown after three successful albums, the latest of which, "Smoke Rings in the Dark," is on the verge of being certified gold.

Allan has moved several steps up the music industry ladder since releasing his debut album, "Used Heart for Sale," four years ago, and indeed is playing tonier joints these days. Next month, he'll be at New York's Irving Plaza, opening an April 19 show for Willie Nelson, one of his heroes. And that trend is certain to continue as Allan's career keeps picking up steam and kudos such as his Academy of Country Music nomination as new male vocalist of the year.

Still, the 32-year-old singer and sometimes songwriter swears he'll never outgrow the honky-tonks.

"I definitely make records so I can play live," he said. "Yes, I love playing for bigger crowds, but I'll always play small bars too, because those gigs are more fun. The bigger the show, the more you feel you're playing for the lights. I love the sweaty little beer-drinking clubs."

That makes him part of the venerable tradition of California country music epitomized in the witty music of Buck Owens and the penetrating song craft of Merle Haggard, both denizens of Bakersfield, where Allan also checks in this week with a show Friday at Owens' Crystal Palace club.

Because live shows are his top priority, he and his band tour almost year-round, playing about three weeks a month and taking the other week off.

A schedule like that gives him plenty of time onstage but not much to pursue his songwriting. He's had a hand in writing just one song on each of his three albums.

"It seems like I have to be off for a couple of weeks for my mind to slow down to where I can start writing," he said. "But we rarely slow down enough to do that. Since I got the record deal, we've been on the road. So I'm still trying to figure that part out.

"I think before you have a record deal you write a lot and can be introverted, pondering things, but when you get a deal you're out playing a lot and you have to become more extroverted."

Allan, however, hasn't become so extroverted that he doesn't still sigh at the honor bestowed on him last year by People magazine, which tabbed him the "sexiest country star" of the year

"Man, I took a lot of [guff] from my band about that. It made for some looooong bus rides," he said with a laugh. "I don't see myself that way. I still don't really have any idea how that came about. It was all kind of strange."

That's the same word he used for a lot of what's labeled country music today, but which often sounds targeted primarily toward rock and pop audiences.

"I think there's probably always room from a couple of those [pop-oriented records] so people can dance to it, but to me, country always has to be the traditional stuff."

Traditional is a word often used to describe Allan's music, and he said he strives to choose songs that tell a story or convey a truth.

Since he doesn't have the time, or even the need to write them himself--"It's never been a big deal to have my own songs on my records; I have too many great writers as friends"--he often turns to those friends when it's time to record.

Several of them are members of the country's maverick movement, including such critically admired songwriter-performers as Jim Lauderdale ("Forever and a Day," "Wake Up Screaming," both on his 1998 album "It Would Be You"), Jamie O'Hara ("Lovin' You Against My Will" from his latest) and Kevin Welch ("Cryin' for Nothin' ").

The O'Hara song, he said, has become a favorite of audiences, and he's been asked how he snagged it from one of country's most respected songwriters.

"I just say I got it because he was at my house and we were writing together. It helps when you've got friends like that."

It also helps Allan make the kind of records he always dreamed of making.

"A lot of the stuff that's on country radio right now doesn't seem to have much soul," Allan said. "Real country music has a lot of soul--it's about life. The pop stuff is about what happened on the weekend; country is about what happens during the week."

*

Gary Allan plays Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 71 Fortune Drive, Irvine Spectrum. 8 p.m. $13 to $22. (949) 585-9000.

Randy Lewis can be reached at (714) 966-5821 or by e-mail at randy.lewis@latimes.com.

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